Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Winter hiking can be exhilarating. Snow on the ground makes everything quiet and fresh. Animals and their tracks stand out against the white background and the color of the birds seems brighter. Even without snow, there are some special considerations for hiking in the cold. While you should always pack your 10 essentials, here's some extra things you should remember for winter hiking:
Dress for the weather - While you might be cold at the start, once your body starts moving, you'll generate heat and warm up. Therefore, you want to dress in layers so that you can remove things as your body and the day heat up. If you start sweating, you'll be wet which is great for cooling in the summer, but not great for staying warm in the winter. On the top, start with a base layer that stays close to the skin, keeps you warm, wicks moisture, and dries quickly. There are many wool and synthetic options for these. Then add a mid-layer for extra warmth, like a fleece. Finally add a water and windproof layer for even more warmth. On the bottom, consider a fleece-lined base layer under a water and windproof pant. Pack an additional dry mid-layer shirt in case you get wet or need more warmth.
Protect hands, head, and feet - Some people think that you lose more heat from your head than any other part of your body. The fact is your head makes up 10% of your surface body area. So any time that much surface area is exposed, you'll lose a significant amount of heat. Therefore, a warm hat and scarf or neck gaiter are important for staying warm. Gloves are essential to protect fingers from the cold. Consider using a glove liner under a waterproof glove or mitten. That way, when you need to use your hands to open your snacks, your fingers still have some protection. Just like the hands your feet need extra layers so use a sock liner under a warm wool sock.
Start early - In the winter, the sun comes up early and goes down early. Keeping track of the trail is more difficult in the winter when leaves or snow cover the forest floor. It's even harder to find the trail after dark when temperatures plummet and you're tired. Therefore, get an early start and make sure you've studied your map before-hand and you bring it with you while hiking.
Stick to shorter hikes - Conditions on the trail change more rapidly in the winter. A typical summer 10 mile hike can become tedious and tiring with ice and snow on the trail. What would normally take half of a day might take significantly longer under winter conditions.
Carry the 10 essentials, plus - Winter hiking is potentially more dangerous than summer hiking so don't skimp on the 10 essentials. In addition, carry instant hand/foot/body warmers, an extra puffy layer, an emergency bivy or sleeping bag, and consider a camp stove. If you get stranded and have to stay over night, these could potentially save your life.
Watch the weather - Staying in tune with the forecast is more important in winter than summer. Be prepared if temperatures are dropping and postpone your hike if a storm is on the way. Also, be aware of avalanche conditions in the mountains. Stay within monitored areas and travel with experienced guides if you're unsure.
Use crampons or snowshoes - Take appropriate footwear if you're going to encounter snowy or icy conditions. Familiarize yourself with how to use them before hand. Crampons or spikes can be dangerous if not used correctly.
Drink more than usual - You can get dehydrated in winter just like in summer. The risk may even be higher since the air is dryer and you don't have the heat to trigger your thirst. Therefore, make sure you're drinking a lot. Put a body warmer packet next to your water bladder if temps are below freezing so your water doesn't freeze. Consider taking a camp stove along to boil water for a hot drink along the way, or pack a hot drink in a thermos to bring with you. Warm drinks will help you stay warm and may encourage you to drink more.
Eat more than usual - Your body burns more calories trying to stay warm in winter than staying cool in summer. Make sure you snack frequently during your cold-weather hike. Keep snacks readily accessible and easy to open so that you don't have to stop to eat them.
Be mindful of electronics - Cold weather can drain the battery in your electronics or cause them to shut down completely. Put them in an inside pocket with a hand warmer and carry extra battery packs. Be sure to bring a paper map and compass to navigate and don't rely only on your phone.
Lastly, winter is not the time to take risks or allow your curiosity to drive you off trail. There can be serious consequences of a mis-step or injury. Never be afraid to turn back. Anytime you get to be outside on the trail is a gift, so focus on the journey and never be disappointed if the destination is out of reach. As always, let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return. And in winter especially, it's always a good idea to have a buddy with you on the trail. Stay safe out there!
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